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Tony Schwartz’s Internet Addiction (and Why You Should Care)

December 1st, 2015 · 39 comments

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Schwartz’s Important Admission

Last weekend, Tony Schwartz published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Addicted to Distraction.” It soon topped the list of the paper’s most e-mailed articles.

Schwartz begins the essay with an admission:

“I fell last winter into an intense period of travel while also trying to manage a growing consulting business. In early summer, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t managing myself well at all, and I didn’t feel good about it.”

Determined to improve matters, he launched an “irrationally ambitious plan” to simultaneously correct multiple deficiencies in his lifestyle, spanning from excessive alcohol and diet soda consumption, to bad eating habits, to the addictive e-mail checking and web surfing that fragmented his day.

What struck me is what happened next…

Through great determination Schwartz was able to stop consuming both diet soda and alcohol. He also eliminated sugar and refined carbohydrates from his diet, and he began exercising regularly.

But there was an addiction he couldn’t shake. As he explains: “I failed completely in just one behavior: cutting back my time on the Internet.”

A New Beast

When attempting to dismiss the threat that tools like e-mail and social media pose to our attention (and perhaps even our sense of autonomy), Internet apologists like to point to previous “scares” that turned out to be not so scary.

Perhaps most common among these examples was the threat of television — a concern which reached its apex with Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.

But as Schwartz’s story confirms, the Internet is a more fearsome beast. It’s true that people perhaps spent too much time watching television. But, for the most part, people…

  • didn’t bring their televisions to work and watch them so incessantly throughout the day that they lost their ability to complete demanding professional tasks at anywhere near their full potential.
  • didn’t bring portable televisions on dates or to movies or to bowling night, and sneak so many glances that they had a hard time participating in the socialization.
  • …didn’t watch television out of the corner of their eye while trying to listen to a college lecture or keep glancing at the latest program while attempting to study in the library.
  • And so on.

My point is that we should no longer treat the impact of the Internet on our cognitive personhood as a quirky issue that is at best, to quote a commenter on the Schwartz article, a “tempest in a tea cup.”

There’s something serious going on when someone like Tony Schwartz, who has made a career helping people reach their full potential, has an easier time kicking alcohol and sugar than his compulsive Internet habit.

I don’t have a specific prescription to offer here. But I do predict that we’re heading toward an era where more drastic responses to this issue will become socially acceptable.

An era, perhaps, when tools that are engineered by highly-paid psychologists to form addictive attractions (ahem, Facebook) are widely shunned, and the idea that everyone has a single universal e-mail address that everyone can access for every reason seems absurd.

Or maybe the best response will look completely different. But the fact that a major response is needed is something that deserves more careful discussion.

Tony Schwartz would likely agree. He ends his piece by telling a story about how he recently found himself eating a meal with his family in a restaurant. As he ate, he noticed a man enter with an “adorable” child.  As Schwartz recalls:

“Almost immediately, the man turned this attention to his phone. Meanwhile, his daughter was a whirlwind of energy and restlessness…[attempting many things] to get her father’s attention…she didn’t succeed and after a while, she glumly gave up.

The silence felt deafening.”

What more motivation do we need to begin considering radical solutions to an unacceptable status quo when it comes to the quality of our mental life?

39 thoughts on “Tony Schwartz’s Internet Addiction (and Why You Should Care)

  1. 100% agree with this, and add along with the “tabbed surfing” culture which is distraction at its best. Thanks Cal for the write up!

  2. John says:

    The last quote you posted reminded me of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

  3. Such an interesting post, and scarily true. I enjoy people watching myself, and it’s sad to see that people will enter a small space like an elevator and instead of engaging with the human next to them, they whip out their phones to look at pictures or emails. Drastic measures will be needed, and I for one will welcome them. I fear we are slowly losing our humanity.

    1. Coop says:

      Totally agree. It’s going downhill, fast 🙁

  4. Sumit Sharma says:

    When I am among a bunch of friends or relatives, every so often I notice that there comes a moment when everyone is looking at the mobile phones, and that moment barks at me to stop, and stop I do, only to observe others and feel pity at what we’ve become. Me and my partner have made it a rule not to check messages or emails when we are doing anything together, be it watching tv, eating food, visiting relatives and more so when we are in the bed. And what have I learnt

    – That everything can wait!

  5. Ingrid says:

    This article is a good discussion of parents using phones etc: Radesky J, Kistin C, Zuckerman B, et al. Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants. Pediatrics. 2014.

  6. Eduardo says:

    This is what I do: I have an OLD mobile phone. If you erase the possibility of procrastinating firstly, it is much, much easier.

    Internet is like a nuclear weapon: really powerful, but equally dangerous.

  7. Courtney says:

    “There’s something serious going on when someone like Tony Schwartz, who has made a career helping people reach their full potential, has an easier time kicking alcohol and sugar than his compulsive Internet habit.”

    I think the wording “someone like Tony Schwartz” is very interesting on a level beyond your intention. If addictions and long-formed habits are begun in order to fulfill some need/desire, then people will have varying levels of difficulty forgoing one vice over another. Maybe Schwartz finds his internet habit particularly difficult to break, because he is afraid of missing out on important information, feels lonely, etc.. Without addressing the need the compulsion attempts to fulfill, it would be very difficult to change the habit. For someone who uses food as a coping method, they would likely have more trouble adopting the diet and exercise changes than cutting back on screen time.

    I think it is worthwhile to point out as well that the solution to his dietary habits was to remove those items altogether, whereas he obviously continues to use the internet. Practicing daily moderation would likely require more continual willpower, than cutting something out entirely.

    1. David M. Dunn says:

      That is an excellent insight. I’m glad you shared it and it made an excellent post even better. Thanks!

  8. John Hunt says:

    I’m curious if you have a no smartphones on policy in your class? I was in a long (as usual) line at Chipotle the other day and everyone was staring and swiping at their phones. This behavior is everywhere. How do you keep it out of the classroom?

  9. Daniel says:

    Great point Cal, truly we are…… Hold up…my fantasy football league scores just came out….

    1. Tim Dawes says:

      Well done

  10. Ravin Kumar says:

    Cal,
    This is a very specific complaint perhaps not well suited for this particular post but I’ll go ahead anyway.

    So really not trying to be a jerk here but with your Top Performer Course it’s ironic that when I try and log onto it to interact with your course I literally get assaulted with notifications from FB that are designed to distract with previous nostalgic posts, or people that I might maybe know, and other major life events from others. I couldn’t help but think of that when in this post you specifically called out Facebook.

    If this is comment is way out of line please delete it, but I am struggling doing things you recommend like quitting Facebook when I need to use it for TP.

    Overall though thanks for all the blog posts, books, and blog posts. They’ve certainly helped me find a direction.

  11. Mike Kovner says:

    Good post as always, Cal.
    It’s interesting, however, that Tony’s main solution was a digital sabbatical, which you’ve previously criticized (http://calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/03/digital-sabbaticals-dont-make-sense/ — a post which I agreed with at the time).
    You said that taking a week off from digital distraction is like eating healthily for a week out of a year. But maybe it’s more like meditation, where focusing intently for 30 minutes per day is good practice for being present during the rest of life.

    Maybe the key to a digital sabbatical is the intent: if you go into it thinking “I’ll take a week off and then go back to normal life and be better for it” then there’s no value. But maybe there’s value going into a digital sabbatical thinking “I’m going to practice avoiding digital distractions for a week so that when I get back to normal life I can have a limited need for constant distraction”.

  12. Misha says:

    The bitter irony of the situation is that deep focus (also known as flow state) is equally addictive. What makes people to sway towards Internet surfing over, say, Book reading? The same people (including myself) have spent hours on time on both of these engaging activities. Why we Fear to Miss Out on a celebrity’s childhood photos, but not on Pulitzer Prize winner? Is that the social expectation, the preferred small chat topics? Boy, we need to revisit our social circles. Is it amount of time required to check the photos versus read the book? But sometimes I get horrified to realize how the whole day disappears in 10 minute chunks – and how many books I could have read if only I read an hour every day. Is it because Internet is always in my pocket, while the book is always on the nightstand? Because Web browsers are preinstalled, and eReaders are not? I don’t know, but I’m on the quest to figure out. I’m sure the same highly-paid psychologists can figure out how to keep us focused. And I believe there are more commercial opportunities in helping people to stay fully engaged rather than in keeping them chronically distracted.

  13. Eugenio Perea says:

    I run a pre-accelerator program for startups called StartupNext and we’ve adopted a tactic to counter that addiction: everyone brings a (clean) sock to class, they drop their phone into the sock, and I collect them all in a bag, including mine. They stay in there for the entire three hours.

  14. Craig says:

    Cal you have a good point. There is a bigger price to pay for all the screen driven distraction than most people are ready to admit. And maybe you can add George Lucas of Star Wars fame to your evidence list. I heard today (haven’t confirmed the story) that he is quoted in a recent Washington Post interview as saying he has totally avoided the internet!

    1. Dan Dickson says:

      Heaven help him if he googles “Jar Jar Binks meme”

  15. Michael says:

    Good point, I both agree and find myself guilty of either being on my computer or phone too much. As far as my family is concerned, it is FB or snap chat. I am going to share this article with my wife and son. Thanks!

  16. A.I. says:

    When ICQ had its heyday about 15 years ago, I found the constant “oh-oh’s” intensely disturbing and disrupting.

    So I put myself always as unavailable and read the messages only when I chose to. Later on, I stopped using ICQ at all.

    In Germany, Whatsapp is immensely popular. For a long time, I didn’t use the app, but as my social circles started communicating solely over Whatsapp, I was forced to join in or miss out on crucial organizational details of my sports team, like when and where we gather, who’s driving and who’s not, etc.

    But I have my smartphone turned silent when I’m working, because the constant stream of messages would be immensely disturbing.

    When I read through the chats at my own chosen time, I find it even enjoyable to read through the posts.

    And, by not responding immediately, you teach others around you that they can’t expect you to react promptly. Likewise, if you get in the habit of reacting immediately, people will expect that behavior in the future and get pissed off at you when you’re busy trying to get something done.

    I do the same with emails too. I react to emails during designated time blocks. Funny story, neither our business nor the partners have gone bankrupt because of that.

    While Cal is a passionate email hater, I prefer email very much over phone calls, because it’s much less disrupting.

    Imagine everybody who writes you a mail would be calling you on the phone with their topic…

  17. A-ron says:

    Cool. Another thing that’s wrong with me. Can’t wait for the product that cures it. Thanks, Internet.

  18. Rob says:

    At the best we have to be able to select and cut down the information and stimulus we want (or have) to process on a daily basis. At worst we fell into an addiction to them.
    The ability to do syntesis and a sound emotional inteligence and more then ever important in this word.

  19. Victor says:

    There’s a certain irony to this post. What are we all doing here if not wasting time in 10 minute increments reading articles on the internet? As much as we’d like to feel superior to those whose drug of choice is celebrity news, is reading stuff like this that much better?

    1. Duncan Smith says:

      In the most literal sense we always have a choice about where to focus our attention, just as we have a choice not to eat that delicious ice cream in the freezer. But companies are spending a lot of money to get us to choose their product. Sometimes it’s best just to get away from the ice cream to avoid having to make the choice.

      Also: “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on” (http://www.newyorker.com/news/george-packer/stop-the-world).

    2. Derek says:

      Another irony is that the post is previewed on the main blog page with a classic click-bait line: “What struck me is what happened next…”

  20. Brendon says:

    I say this as someone who has been accused of spending too much time on their phone, in cases where others would prefer I pay attention to them.

    At any time we have a choice about where to focus our attention. The most interesting and relevant conversations are moving to the Internet and that is likely to continue. It’s only rational to allocate our attention to the things that are most interesting and relevant.

    Is this status quo really “unacceptable?”

    1. Jeff Geisler says:

      Having myself recently read, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”, I’m not sure at all that the best conversations are happening on the Net. The research suggests that the distraction driven nature of our screen centered world is changing the structure of our brains, and not in ways conducive to the deep thinking required to solve problems.

  21. Matthew says:

    I really want to get rid of my smartphone because of this, but it’s just so handy to have when I actually do NEED it and aren’t just checking it to kill time. What a frustrating conundrum.

  22. Duncan Smith says:

    A blog post about internet addiction is a bit like an Alcoholics Anonymous-branded shot glass, but here we are.

  23. susan says:

    We got rid of the internet in our home in July 2015. We have 3 teens in the house. It became chronic. Everyone in their rooms on their devices. Netflix was equally horrific. Only times we saw our kids was at dinner time and even then, when we outlawed the device at the table, they would be gone in a flash to get back on their devices.
    Dinners are way better in the past half year. We see our kids more, play games around the fire place. Sad we have to go “dry”, but there are no limits with wifi in the house. Believe me, we tried everything to limit. Everything.
    As I type this, I send it via my cel phone hotspot. Indeed a blog about the dangers of internet is like Alcohol Anonymous engraved shot glasses.
    Hoping we can find manageable solutions to this new nuclear tool!

  24. Leandro says:

    I see social network addiction infiltrating through the cracks of this comment system.. lol.

  25. ChileSitio says:

    Aside from all the ironies of publishing and reading this article on the internet, it resonates much too much for my liking. I generally have a policy of not checking my phone at the table, or when in company unless I’m trying to organise a social outing. Even so, the internet interfers far too much with my productivity at work and I worry that I won’t be able to crack the habit either, as so much work is done via the internet that I can’t just block it out like it doesn’t exist!

    Thank you for this article and bringing the issue to everyone’s attention. Let’s hope we can find a solution soon!

  26. Sanjeev says:

    I completely agree with the writer’s perspective. I have seen many young, bright minds fall prey to the wanton abuse of internet and gaming.

    I have documented my findings in my blog https://kaypeesblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/drifters-in-cyberspace/

    I think we are staring at a problem with monstrous proportions. Its time the regulators and scientific community step up to the challenge. This is the new ‘substance abuse’

  27. yeah…any addiction is addiction but today it is almost impossible to not go to internet 🙂

  28. Hi Cal, we’re seeing more and more Internet, social media, gaming, online gambling and porn addiction at our clinic. Many people are finding it difficult to cope without their connected technology and it impacts on public and private lives in so many ways including emotional, relational, psychological and spiritual. People that are predispossed to obsessive compulsive conditions find it difficult to put the Internet away. So-called normal people can become obsessed by gaming, social media and porn. This is a very real and very serious addiction. Thanks for highlighting.

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